Op-Ed: What UVA did wrong when white supremacists came to campus

White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

“White lives matter, you will not replace us,” chanted white nationalists as they marched through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., with tiki torches Friday night. On Saturday, Ku Klux Klan members and others displaying Confederate flags, swastikas and an array of hate symbols gathered for a rally in Emancipation Park in that small, majority-white college town.

In a four-sentence statement on the university’s website, UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan deemed the campus march “intolerable” and “entirely inconsistent with the university’s values.” Sullivan also added that she was “deeply saddened and disturbed by the hateful behavior displayed by torch-bearing protesters that marched on our grounds this evening.”

But Sullivan’s message, and subsequent university postings Saturday, failed to explicitly name white supremacy as the motive of the protesters and made no mention of race. We suspect that many black parents who are about to drop their 17- and 18-year-olds off for move-in day and the fall term at UVA in the next week are worried. They have heard nothing from campus leadership that is likely to assure them that UVA is firmly committed to addressing racism when it occurs on and around campus.


The posted statements don’t say that the “hateful behavior” of the “Unite the Right” marchers targeted people of color. When black freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania received messages containing racial slurs and threats of lynching last November, Penn’s President Amy Gutmann and other administrators repeatedly called these acts racist and acknowledged that black students were victims of the digital attacks. Higher education leaders must explicitly and specifically denounce racism as alt-right and other white nationalist groups bring hate to campus.

The UVA statements do nothing to debunk Ku Klux Klan members’ and others’ claims about the status of white people. By far, whites make up the largest racial group at UVA, campus statistics show. There were 13,098 white students during the 2016-17 academic school year, compared with 1,323 blacks and 1,285 Latinos. Furthermore, last year only 87 of the university’s 2,754 faculty members were black. White men made up 49.1% of the faculty. These numbers make clear that white lives, especially white men’s lives, do in fact matter at UVA and in Charlottesville, and are in no danger of being replaced. The university must deploy these facts against the alt-right’s erroneous assertions.

In moments of racial crisis, students and faculty — especially people of color — look to senior administrators for guidance and reassurance. They expect courageous leadership and the responsible use of evidence. Mishandling these situations in raceless ways does nothing to confirm, for instance, that black lives matter. It signals to students and faculty that their university is either too unaware, too afraid or insufficiently skilled to talk about racism, let alone to address it. According to 2016 data from the American Council on Education, 83% of college and university presidents in our nation are white. Campus chief executives, including those who are people of color, join white nationalists in preserving and exacerbating white supremacy when they neglect to name and boldly counter racism.

Shaun R. Harper and Charles H. F. Davis III are professors at USC’s Rossier School of Education. They lead the USC Race and Equity Center.

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